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 [graphic] Telling the Stories: Planning Effective Interpretive Programs for Properties Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

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U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service


Many techniques are available to help historic places tell their stories. Some use traditional means, such as costumed docents or published guidebooks. Others use newly developed technologies, such as interactive video, CD-ROM, or the World Wide Web. Whatever the medium, good interpretation is always based on reliable research and tries to tell the whole story of a place. In some cases, National Register documentation is the only source for this information. It is always a good place to start. Often, however, existing materials must be augmented or completely new ones created to provide the firm base needed for effective interpretation. Persuasive, dramatic interpretation of incomplete or inaccurate information is worse than no interpretation at all.

Interpretive tools fall into two broad categories, those that are provided directly by people (usually referred to as "personal" interpretation) and those that are not (non-personal interpretation). This section discusses each of the major techniques, outlining the advantages and disadvantages of each.


    - talks and tours
    - curriculum-based field studies
    - "living history"
    - drama
    - special events
    - workshops, seminars, discussions, debates


For many people the interpretation of historic places is virtually synonymous with guided tours given in historic house museums, national parks, or restored towns or neighborhoods. When well done, there is no question that people talking directly to people can compete with all other media for impact and effectiveness. The interpreter is face to face with an audience and can respond to its particular needs and interests. Not only can skilled interpreters adapt to the unexpected, they can thrive on surprises by incorporating spontaneous exchanges into the interpretive message. Presentations can shift their focus, incorporating different information, themes, and objectives in response to audience reactions. This two-way conversation can produce a memorable experience. Good "live" interpretation creates a sense of shared experience between interpreter and audience.

A tour presented from the viewpoint of a non-traditional observer--a slave, a chambermaid, a child--can effectively counter stereotypical views of a traditional site. On a more practical level, the additional security and visitor control provided by guided tours can help protect a fragile landscape or deter vandalism at a ruin or archeological site. Guided tours also have the luxury of time to help visitors make connections between the history of specific places, broad historical trends and currents, and their own experiences.

But guided tours have disadvantages that keep them from being the interpretive medium of choice in many situations. Programs that rely on paid employees and maintain a regular schedule are very expensive. Those operated with volunteer interpreters need less money, but still demand some form of organizational structure to be responsible for recruitment, training, and management. Both volunteers and paid staff must be selected with care to ensure the necessary commitment and enthusiasm.

In all cases, training is critical to the success of both paid and volunteer interpretation programs. It takes time, and sometimes money, to ensure that what people learn on tours is accurate, complete, and current. Mastery of historical information does not automatically convert to effective interpretation. Training in the techniques of interpretation is equally important; success is measured not just by what is said but by how it is said. Costumed interpretation and role-playing need special training. This training also can be expensive, both in time and in money.

Established tour programs require regular supervision and evaluation. Consistent quality is hard to achieve. What interpreters tell the public can never be fully controlled, because it is impossible to anticipate what visitors will ask. Interpreters also sometimes communicate incorrect or inaccurate information. Regular tours easily become repetitious, losing the enthusiasm that engages visitors. Both paid interpreters and volunteers need standards and guidelines of what is expected of them. Some type of formal evaluation is usually necessary. Turnover is high and finding good replacements is sometimes difficult, particularly for programs that rely on volunteers. It takes time and effort to build in the rewards and recognition that help maintain freshness and enthusiasm.

Tours and other formal interpretive presentations generally attract only those who are already interested in history and historic places; their appeal to the general public is often limited. Publicity for a regularly scheduled interpretive program is not easy to obtain, and it is sometimes difficult for even those who are interested to discover what tours are available in an area and where they are. Finally, tours of historic houses and districts often are perceived by the general public as being elitist, dealing only with the lives of the rich, white, and famous, a perception that is, unfortunately, sometimes deserved.

Informal interpretation, where interpreters are available but do not present formal, scheduled programs, is usually combined with special events or other types of interpretation. It may be a good choice if you do not have a large group of potential tour leaders, but the ones you have are dedicated and experienced. Perhaps an interpreter could circulate through a historic district during a holiday house tour. A seemingly casual greeting to visitors standing on the porch of one of the houses could become a mini-tour--flexible, spontaneous, personalized. In responding to visitors' need for specific orientation and information, the interpreter could direct their experience toward broader meanings. A question about the date of construction of a house could lead to a discussion of the whole history of the neighborhood. Why was the house built where it was? Who designed it or helped build it? Who lived in it, including extended family members, servants or slaves, possibly boarders? The house could be related to the primary themes of the neighborhood. The interpreter could make connections with past and current trends and patterns. How does the relationship of the neighborhood to the downtown of 1890 compare with its relationship to the shopping mall of 1990? What are the differences? What are the similarities?

Although this kind of occasional interpretation is much less expensive and easier to manage than regularly scheduled tours, success still depends largely on careful selection, training, and supervision. Informal interpretation requires creativity and knowledge in many areas both to answer specific questions and to make connections with broader historical themes.

Case Study 6. Split Rock Lighthouse, Lake County, Minnesota (listed in the National Register on June 23, 1969)

High on a cliff overlooking Lake Superior, Split Rock Lighthouse has been a popular tourist attraction since 1924. It is now a state park operated by the Minnesota Historical Society. (courtesy: Minnesota Historical Society, Split Rock Lighthouse)


The interpretive program at Split Rock Lighthouse is based on a comprehensive plan that established what story would be told and how it would be told. The paid interpreters receive extensive training, in both interpretive techniques and lighthouse history, including the daily lives of the keepers.(courtesy: Minnesota Historical Society, Split Rock Lighthouse)
Split Rock Lighthouse was constructed by the U. S. Lighthouse Service in 1909 to guide ships carrying iron ore from Minnesota's Mesabi Range to steel mills along the Great Lakes. The lighthouse, high on a cliff overlooking Lake Superior, has been a popular tourist attraction since 1924, when the North Shore highway was built as the first road to penetrate this wilderness area. Since 1976, the lighthouse has been operated as a historic site by the Minnesota Historical Society. The story of the lighthouse and its keepers is told to over 120,000 visitors every summer in a variety of ways. Casual visitors move at their own pace, using a self-guiding brochure and talking to interpreters stationed at particular points of interest. Visitors who want more information may choose hour-long guided tours. Costumed interpreters playing the roles of lighthouse keepers and their wives in 1925 greet visitors in the lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper's house. The keepers polish the 242 glittering cut glass prisms of the original Fresnel beacon and crank up the 250-pound weights powering the clockwork mechanism, while explaining to visitors that the lighthouse was needed to keep freighters from running aground. The high-grade iron ore they carried reacted with with the iron deposits on the lake bottom to cause false readings on the ships' magnetic compasses.

The twenty paid interpreters are carefully trained. An interpretive staff manual, updated annually, gives basic information on interpretive techniques, the history of lighthouses, shipping, the Great Lakes, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and Split Rock Lighthouse. Each interpreter also receives a detailed outline of the tour, including what visitors are expected to learn at each of the seven stations. In the spring the whole staff comes together for two full days of training, supplemented by brief meetings every morning during the season and longer meetings monthly.

The interpretive program at the lighthouse is based on a plan that established both what story would be told and how it would be told, taking into account such factors as visitation patterns (already known in this case), audience interest and demographics, the physical environment of the site, finances, and the availability of historical information. Lee Radzak, site manager for the lighthouse, stresses the importance of accurate history: "Solid and well-researched documentation provides the fuel that will drive a successful interpretive program."


Case Study 7. "Buffalo Tours"

In Buffalo, New York, the Preservation Coalition of Erie County has developed a series of tours to help both local residents and visitors appreciate the rich legacy of industrial, commercial, and residential architecture in the "Queen City of the Lakes." The Coalition is a non-profit organization established by the New York State Department of Education in 1981 to preserve the historic and architectural legacy of Buffalo and Erie County. Working with local partners, the Coalition's staff and volunteers offer a series of walking tours of Buffalo and the surrounding area. The tours are based, in large part, on the information contained in the nomination forms prepared for the many districts and buildings in Buffalo listed in the National Register. Most of the tours are tied together by themes. They go beyond architectural descriptions of buildings to give a sense of the complexity and conflict of the city's past. The "Working Waterfront" tour, for example, documents Buffalo's industrial, working-class heritage. The tour includes the grain elevators some architectural historians have called the "most influential structures ever put up in North America" and a tavern "dating back to the days of the saloon-boss system" in local politics. On another tour, visitors are invited to explore life inside three houses on "Millionaire's Row," to "see how taste, money, and social rituals helped to shape interior arrangements and appointments."

Driving tours "bring back the early days of automobile tourism, when getting there was half the fun." Participants meet at a central staging area, receive a kit containing maps, an identification button, and other material, and set off on an all-day excursion, visiting parks, mills, mansions, "tourist cabins, diners, homey tourist attractions, roadside oddities, artifacts and endearments."

Each of the tours is scheduled two or three times during the summer tourist season. Their availability is publicized in a broadly distributed flyer including tour descriptions and a registration form inexpensively printed on newsprint. Registration fees go to help local preservation.


Tours for school classes and other organized groups of young people play a central role in interpretation at many historic sites. An excellent way to reach the people who will be making preservation decision in the future, school tours also demonstrate a commitment to education that local governments and other potential sources of funding like to see. Working with teachers who understand how students learn and have mastered skills that facilitate learning also can help strengthen interpretive programs for all ages.

If tours to historic places are to achieve their full educational potential, they must fit the local curriculum. They must help teachers accomplish what they are required to do. Local curricula are increasingly likely to reflect national standards, which were created in the mid-1990s and have been adopted by many state educational systems. The best way to insure that interpretive materials fit established curricula is to work closely with local teachers in developing those materials. Your property may illustrate the same themes, trends, and patterns discussed in a textbook or included in local history standards. Perhaps the local fourth grade studies inventors and your property is related to the industrial revolution. Railroads, canals, and coal mines are often excellent places to teach transportation, immigration, and acculturation. A frontier fort in western Pennsylvania or Kansas illustrates lessons on westward expansion, the clash of cultures between newcomers from the East and indigenous peoples, and the tension between local residents and the central government, whether that government was located in London or Washington.

School tours have their disadvantages. Many school systems have little money for field trips. It is easy for these trips to turn into holidays from school for both the students and the teachers, and undisciplined headaches for the historic places they visit. Finding the right teacher or teachers to work with can be difficult. It is not easy to institutionalize a long-term commitment from a whole school system, so that a successful school program can survive the departure or retirement of active teacher partners.

Case Study 8. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, California

For thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish, the area northwest of what is now Los Angeles provided a home for the Chumash and Gabrielino/Tongva cultures. A Chumash village called "Satwiwa," meaning "the bluffs," was located near an important trade route that followed Big Sycamore Canyon from the Santa Monica Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a partnership of federal, state and local park agencies, has developed a curriculum-based program that helps third and fourth grade students visiting Satwiwa understand how the Chumash people used the rich diversity of plants and animals available in this area as the basis for a complex culture and social life. During a two-hour program, students see how the tule and willow growing at the site were used to construct the traditional Chumash dwelling house. They see acorns, a staple of the Chumash diet, being ground but don't ask to taste them. Like the Chumash, they have learned that acorns are inedible without further processing. They do taste the naturally occurring chia seeds (sage) that were traded for pinon nuts and other articles not available locally. They also investigate how the Chumash used the animals that were once common here not only for food but for other products important in their daily life. They practice traditional skills in toolmaking and shell drilling. After looking at how the natural environment has been affected by later settlement, the students gather to draw some conclusions. How has the environment changed and why? Could families live off the land today as successfully as the Chumash did in the past?

Teacher workbooks provide detailed practical guidance on making arrangements for the tour. The workbooks also include pre- and post-visit materials and worksheets that can be photocopied and used in the classroom to prepare for or reinforce the learning experienced in the park. Summer teacher workshops help teachers prepare for their site visits. The program has been so popular that schools sometimes have to wait as long as two years before being able to schedule a trip.


In "living history," broadly defined, interpreters, often dressed in period clothing, enliven the story they are telling with demonstrations of activities. They cook in restored or recreated kitchens and tend fields or animals. A teacher conducts a lesson in a historic school house. Military reenactors charge across open fields, wreathed in clouds of smoke from muskets, rifles, and cannon. Sometimes the interpreters discuss what they are doing with visitors. On other occasions, they may not step out of their historical character and period or even acknowledge the presence of their audience.

Well executed living history seems to bring the past to life before the audience's eyes. Props, in the form of equipment, clothing, and product (perhaps even edible product), reinforce important messages. A demonstration can explain an unfamiliar process in a way that words alone could never match.

Living history has disadvantages as well. Like more traditional talks and tours, this kind of interpretation requires careful selection and training of volunteers or paid staff. The strength of living history is immersion in a particular historical moment. It is not well suited to interpreting change over time.

The most serious problem is often the content. Just what does living history teach? Because it is so persuasive, historical accuracy is particularly important. But information on the daily activities of life in the past is hard to find. How much reality is it possible to communicate? Is the impression created simplistic or even romanticized? Is there substance to the message, i.e., is the why included or does the learning stop with the how? Is the living history demonstration integrated into the over-all story of the property, or does it serve mainly to entertain the audience and the interpreters? How many compromises are necessary to make the clothing worn by interpreters comfortable? Do safety concerns require significant alterations of equipment? Authentic materials can be expensive and costly to maintain. It is also sometimes difficult to ensure that living history includes the whole story. In our increasingly multi-cultural society, it is essential to include all races and both men and women in interpretation. Without careful attention to these concerns, living history can become one of the most abused forms of interpretation.

Case Study 9. Three Historic Places Use Living History

Building small mounds with the same techniques as the Mississippian Indians used, students visiting Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site get a sense of the amount of work required to build the site's huge prehistoric mounds. (courtesy: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site)

Living history need not be presented by interpreters. In the Weave Room at Lowell National Historical Park, in Massachusetts, a huge room is filled with early 20th-century looms. Not all the machines are running, yet the sound is so loud that visitors are given ear plugs. Anyone who walks the fifty yards or so through the room will have no difficulty understanding why textile workers, most long retired, keep repeating that they will never forget the noise.

At the Ninemile Remount Station, in the Lolo National Forest, much of the appeal of the interpretation, discussed in more detail below, is carried by the mules that graze where "historic" mules were once pastured.

At the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois, not far from St. Louis, Missouri, members of scheduled school tours participate in living history themselves. They build small mounds using the same tools and construction techniques used by the Indians who constructed the prehistoric mounds preserved at the site. They loosen the heavy soil with hoes and digging sticks, fill baskets with earth, carry them to the mound, and tamp the dirt into place. Based on the amount of dirt they have moved and the time it has taken, they calculate how long it would take to build Monk's Mound, the largest of the monuments at the site. They discover that a class of thirty students carrying eighty baskets full of dirt every day would have taken 509 years to complete the huge structure, which covers about fifteen acres and still reaches a height of approximately a hundred feet.


A number of historic sites use scripted presentations by trained actors and even by puppeteers. The historical record is filled with drama, and skilled writers can work with historians to turn careful research into engaging performances. Trained actors ensure polished and effective delivery. Unlike tours or living history, a scripted dramatic program can be carefully reviewed in advance and regularly updated, guarding against false impressions and distorted conclusions. Dramatic performances can be either regularly scheduled or used only occasionally. Sometimes they can be moved from one location to another, even into a school room. Theater can help people understand human response to past events and situations, can present richly textured characters, and can show the complexity of historical situations that seem simple in hindsight. Perhaps most importantly, drama can demonstrate the passionate conviction that people in the past brought to disputes over issues that continue to be hotly debated today.

Difficulties emerge when audiences want more information. Actors usually do not have the depth of knowledge to answer questions. In most cases, a staff member or volunteer must be available to address the interpretive provocation that occurs during the performance. The research necessary to ensure accuracy must be conducted or at least coordinated by someone with experience in historical research. Script writing is best left to experienced writers. To be convincing, only actors with the necessary skills and training should make up the cast. Drama can be expensive, even though some of the expense is one time (script, props, and to a lesser extent, costumes).

Case Study 10. "Steps in Time"

Visitors to the "Steps in Time" program moved through the reconstructed 1840 House in Baltimore, MD, as invisible witnesses to passionate disputes about religion, class, and race. (courtesy: Baltimore City Life Museum)

In 1985, the Baltimore City Life Museum developed the first in a series of short scripted dramas relating to historic sites in the city. In "Steps in Time," visitors to the reconstructed 1840 House witnessed a dramatic presentation involving the family of wheelwright John Hutchinson, who lived here between 1835 and 1840 with his wife, three children, two boarders, and a free African American servant. After a short introduction in a museum meeting room, small groups moved from room to room in the eight-room house, an apparently invisible audience walking in on small dramas that were already in progress as they arrived and continued after they left. John Hutchinson argued with his servant and boarder about colonialism and abolition. The brother and fiancÚ of the African American servant disagreed heatedly about the prospects for a free black man who had lost his job in the shipyards due to competition from Irish immigrants. The Catholic Hutchinsons and their Protestant boarder disputed over an 1839 riot at a Carmelite convent. After the tour, a discussion back in the meeting room gave participants an opportunity to ask questions and to talk about what they had seen.

A private, non-profit organization, the Baltimore City Life Museums used funding from federal, state, municipal, and private sources to develop this unusual urban living history program and to present it to local schools at no cost. The script for "Steps in Time" was based on extensive historical research and constantly modified and updated to reflect new information. Although some of the characters were portrayed by professional actors, the use of volunteers from local schools and colleges for other roles kept costs relatively low. "Steps in Time" was so well received that dramatic presentations were developed for other sites as well. Between 1986 and 1996, when the Baltimore City Life Museums closed, they put on over 900 performances of a dozen different plays for more than 20,000 people.

The fact that visitors viewed these small dramas without being directly involved made it easier for them to detach themselves from their own emotional involvement in controversial issues like class, race, and religion to understand the importance of these same issues to people in the past. As Dale Jones, creator of "Steps in Time," said: "Our primary purpose here is not so much to get people to come in and learn facts, but to get people to leave knowing about issues like abolition, colonization, and what it was like being black back then through the eyes of a black. We're really trying to get people to make a tie with the past."


Special events are excellent opportunities to educate communities about their own historic places, to reach new audiences, including volunteers and potential donors, to attract new visitors, and even to do a little fund-raising. Special events, with their attendant publicity, can increase visibility for a new site that no one knows about or an old one that everyone takes for granted. They may be the best way to engage local audiences, particularly if your historic place is just developing or trying to change an interpretive program. Even a small group of volunteers can plan and execute an effective special event; this may attract the people and support needed to expand interpretation into a broader or more permanent program. Local chambers of commerce and businesses welcome these activities and often will support them with donations of money, products, or services. Events bring in visitors while re-affirming local values. Volunteers enjoy participating. Publicity is relatively easy to arrange.

Special events can commemorate significant dates identified in the historical record: youth activities on a birthday; festive decorations or parades to match a historic celebration; a train excursion, a few speeches, even a workshop or seminar on steam trains to mark the anniversary of the day the first steam engine puffed into town. If the story is one without landmark dates, the event can celebrate everyday life. A busy Saturday on Main Street in 1880 or 1920 could be recreated, with signs in the stores identifying the businesses that were there in that year and advertising the goods and services they provided, even including prices. Historic photos of the downtown during its historic period can stimulate the imagination. Displays in merchants' windows can remind people of the vibrant life that once centered around this area. An event like this is an excellent way to create new interest in revitalizing a downtown Main Street.

It takes careful planning to ensure that special events are integrated into the overall interpretive plan you have developed. If they are not directly related to the story that a place has to tell, they can easily turn into free-for-all, anything-goes excuses for turning out crowds or rewarding neighbors with a day of fun. It is sometimes difficult to resist the temptation merely to entertain with cotton candy and a local band and to ensure that reenactments, musicians, craft demonstrations, or even just speech makers relate clearly and directly to the story that the place has to tell, that the holiday is one that was actually observed, and that the technology used is not anachronistic. Civil War reenactors do not belong on the farm of a Quaker who opposed the war, but a parade of antique automobiles would be both appropriate and highly photogenic in the neighborhood where the man who owned the first car in town lived. The event must fit the period chosen for interpretation; the past was not all the same. An old automobile display is not appropriate for the commemoration of an 1876 centennial celebration, for example.

Publicity for special events, through feature stories in local newspapers or magazines, public service announcements, or community bulletin boards on radio and television, is critical and needs to be carefully planned. Special events also require planning to prevent damage to the places being celebrated. Large groups of visitors easily can have harmful and overwhelming impacts on fragile historic structures and landscapes. Most historic buildings were not designed to accommodate hundreds of guests. Only so many feet can walk across a historic landscape before grass dies and bare earth appears. Safety for both visitors and property is another concern. Plans may need to provide for parking and traffic control, first aid, and possibly law enforcement.

Case Study 11. Stuyvesant Falls Mill District, Columbia County, NY (listed in the National Register September 16, 1976)

The 1976 listing of the Stuyvesant Falls Mill District in the National Register helped save the iron truss bridge that tied the community together for almost a century. "Stuyvesant Days," held the year following the reopening of the bridge, brought local people together to celebrate the rich history of their town. (courtesy: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)

Stuyvesant Falls is a village of about 700 people, located in New York State not far from the town of Hudson. Here the water of Kinderhook Creek falls 70 feet on its way to join the Hudson River. Beginning in the early 19th century the power of the falls attracted water-powered industries to the town. In 1976, the Stuyvesant Falls Mill District was listed in the National Register, including the falls and related mill dam, three 19th-century cotton mills, a more recent hydroelectric power plant, the archeological remains of grist, paper, cotton and woolen mills, and an 1899 iron truss bridge over the creek.

In the early 1990s, the county proposed replacing the badly deteriorated bridge. The people of the town banded together to use National Register listing to save the bridge that had tied the community together for almost a hundred years. The bridge was saved and reopened to traffic in 1993. The following year, the town organized "Stuyvesant Day" to celebrate. Community members organized a pot-luck picnic at the bridge, developed a walking tour of the town, exhibited historic photographs on the front porch of one of the houses, interviewed long-time residents, and even sold tee-shirts with pictures of the bridge. The organizer of the event reported, "it is amazing how this has given the people a feeling of pride in their town."


Case Study 12. Boston Manufacturing Company, Middlesex County, MA (designated a National Historic Landmark December 22, 1977)

In Waltham, Massachusetts, the Charles River Museum of Industry, the City of Waltham, and the Boston Metropolitan Transit Commission sponsor a Great New England Steam Expo. Steam trains, steam cars, steam engines, steam toys, and steam whistles all wheeze and whirl interpretively. Steamboats on the Charles River, both historic and modern, complement the land-based displays. Stanley Steamer automobiles, once manufactured nearby, are also on hand. Because the museum's home is the former power plant of the National Historic Landmark Boston Manufacturing Company complex, which still houses the original 3,000-horsepower steam boiler dating from the 1840s, this event relates directly to the museum's message while still appealing to large numbers of volunteers and visitors. Local newspapers publicize the event with articles and colorful photographs.


Workshops, courses, and seminars can be effective tools in increasing awareness of the significance of a historic place among targeted audiences, such as local teachers and students, Civil War Roundtables, or genealogical groups. Community-based educational institutions and organizations are often willing to sponsor such programs. Public service announcements in local media help publicize their availability. Knowledgeable paid or volunteer speakers or instructors ensure that the content of the program is accurate and intellectually challenging.

Carefully done, debates and discussions can transform controversy from an apparent liability into an asset. Town meetings, legislative debates, and explorations of differing points of view on controversial issues can lead to in-depth understanding of the story of a historic place. They can enrich future interpretation and, at the same, time, attract newspaper or television coverage that might not be available for regularly scheduled tours. Workshops including oral histories can help encourage the involvement of ethnic groups that have contributed to the growth of a community. Symposiums or discussions can bring together scholars and other knowledgeable people to debate disputes over the history or meaning of a place. This kind of intellectual role-playing helps both participants and observers feel the emotion of history and understand its hard choices.

Programs for specific audiences can require considerable planning time for relatively few consumers. Debates and discussions, especially those that recreate past events, require skilled facilitators to direct the program, keep it in perspective, and bring it to closure. The interpreter/facilitator must have a wealth of information to avoid inappropriate or inaccurate conclusions. Simplistic inferences are easy to make and hard to disavow.

Case Study 13. Lowell National Historical Park, Middlesex County, MA

The Weave Room at Lowell National Historical Park, where workers produced thousands of yards of textiles between 1835 and the 1950s, helps participants in Tsongas Center workshops experience firsthand the work environment that they are studying. (James Higgins, courtesy: Lowell National Historical Park)

The Tsongas Industrial History Center is located in the Boott Cotton Mills complex, part of Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, Massachusetts. In the same brick buildings where hundreds of workers produced thousands of yards of cotton textiles between 1835 and the 1950s, students now practice "hands-on" history. Developed as a partnership between the University of Massachusetts Lowell Graduate School of Education and Lowell National Historical Park, the Tsongas Center offers eight workshops for students focusing on the technology of the industrial revolution and the lives of the workers who made it possible. In the "Workers on the Line" workshop, for instance, students take on the roles of workers on a textile printing assembly line. They experience the loss of control that comes when management "speeds up" the machinery. They decide whether to go on strike when wages are cut. They look for better ways to organize their workplace. The workshop incorporates the historic site where the Tsongas Center is located, taking students through the recreated Weave Room to experience the industrial environment the workers knew. The Center sends out curriculum packages with activities and historic photographs that can be used in classrooms before and after each of the workshops.

The Center also has created materials for classroom use. These interdisciplinary programs integrate social studies with science, language arts, mathematics and art to supplement the Massachusetts Social Studies curriculum. In one of these Lowell Industrial Learning Experiences, rangers or museum teachers help younger students imagine how life changed for one of the famous Lowell "mill girls" when she moved from a farm to a factory. The students dress in reproduction 19th-century clothing and learn to pick, card, spin, and weave wool and cotton. In another Lowell Industrial Learning Experience offering, middle and high school teachers can rent a kit containing copies of letters, hospital records, city directories, maps, and photos. Using these materials, the students enter the world of 15-year-old Barilla Taylor.

The Center also works closely with schools to develop professional development and in-service programs related to industrial history. A resource center has audio-visual materials, software, books, and sample curriculum units on subjects relating to industrial history that teachers can use.

Case Study 14. Civil War Weekend

In 1995, Harrisburg Area Community College, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, offered a Civil War Weekend primarily designed for adults, particularly those interested in participating in the many popular Civil War reenactment groups. On Saturday, a Civil War Exposition provided a full day of demonstrations by costumed reenactors of infantry and artillery maneuvers, signaling, camp life, and music and dance. Historical societies and other groups interested in the Civil War set up displays, and merchants offered antiques, reproductions, books, prints, and other souvenirs for sale.

On Sunday, the College offered a series of seminars. Some dealt with topics of particular interest to reenactors, including descriptions of the undergarments and headgear worn by mid-19th century women in Pennsylvania, and discussions and demonstrations of weapons and signaling. Others concentrated on facets of Civil War history relating to Pennsylvania, including the invasion of Harrisburg's West Shore by the Confederacy in June 1863, and a number of sessions on the Battle of Gettysburg and its effects on the town. Other sessions broadened understanding of the War by discussing non-traditional topics, such as black and white spies for both sides, the role of women as both combatants and civilian participants, the two prominent African American citizens who played an important role in the operations of the Underground Railroad in Columbia, Pennsylvania, and the effects of the War on ordinary people. The modest registration fee included four seminars and a special luncheon featuring a speaker in the role of Abraham Lincoln.

Case Study 15. "Downtown is a Classroom"

The Kentucky state historic preservation office has worked closely with the Kentucky Main Street program to develop day-long workshops to encourage local Main Street managers and teachers to work together to bring student groups downtown to visit and explore. As a result of the Kentucky Education Reform Act, teachers are actively seeking ways to link the curriculum and local resources by using community resources in the classroom. High school teachers are also looking for community service opportunities for their students.

Local Main Street managers bring teachers from their communities with them to the workshops. The teams work together to discover resource materials on their own downtowns, including National Register nominations. Coordinators work with teachers to develop interdisciplinary and thematic units based on the built environment. Workshop participants model an activity that teachers might use with their classes, going on a scavenger hunt for evidence on the Main Street of the host community and using Polaroid cameras to capture what they find. The scavenger hunt is based on the National Register nomination and the Polaroid cameras are provided free by the Polaroid Education Program. The group also completes an activity where participants use their bodies as buildings on a "Main Street" laid out on the floor with masking tape. Each "building" tries to position itself in the best possible location for its particular business. A lively discussion about prime locations, parking, and proximity, both to each other and in the community as a whole, including on occasion a bit of good-humored pushing and shoving, helps develop an understanding of the complex dynamics of "downtown."

At the end of the workshop each team is challenged to create an activity they would undertake with a school group in their own town. Through these activities, teachers can bring students to Main Street to practice the observation, research, and critical thinking skills required in their local curricula and to enhance their own sense of place and community identity. The Main Street managers can help students experience downtown as a familiar, but fascinating place and can invite them to participate in the ongoing discussion of what downtown was, what it is now, and what it should be for them in the future.


    - publications
    - newspapers and magazines
    - educational materials
    - indoor exhibits (artifacts, art, dioramas, text, and three-dimensional maps)
    - exterior exhibits and signs
    - audio-visual materials
    - electronic media

Together these tools make up a kind of self-service system of communication. By definition they are impersonal. They lack the ability of "live" interpretation to adjust to the needs of particular individuals or groups. But, like the 24-hour teller machine at a bank, they are available whenever they are needed. While non-personal interpretation does not require continuing costs for staffing, it does involve extensive investments of both time and money during development. Like personal interpretation, it is dependent on good research to insure that it is both accurate and inclusive.


Publications, including books, walking or driving tour brochures, maps, posters, and postcards, are widely used, and sometimes misused. Because there are many types of published materials and some of them are relatively inexpensive, they are a popular interpretive choice. Some publications are easily portable; visitors carry them as guides while touring and take them home as souvenirs. They provide both general orientation and detailed information. Publications can help visitors prepare before they arrive and provide important advice that will affect how they experience the place. When creatively written and visually appealing, publications evoke vivid images and stir the emotions. They are relatively easy to update or revise. Translations done with care and sensitivity broaden the audience to include those who do not speak English. Skillful writers can prepare a series of publications that interpret the story of a historic place at different levels, making the story interesting and understandable to a range of audiences. Uniform design can help such families of publications maintain the identity of a property or group of properties. Publications help satisfy the curiosity provoked by other interpretive programs. Visitors willingly pay and the process of learning continues when they return home. Sales can be an important extension of this interpretive medium, covering costs and sometimes even making money.

Publications do not solve every interpretive problem. No site can offer a full range of free, printed items. Books and other publications that address a story at length and in-depth are expensive to produce and usually only feasible if sold. Sales entail administrative expenses and require space for both sales and storage. Published materials often lack focus. They try to do too much. They become over-burdened with too many tasks, for too many audiences. When this occurs, no one uses them, they end up only as litter and limited funding is wasted. Publications intended to meet everyone's needs meet no one's. Successful publications must address specific goals and be directed at defined audiences.

Travel guides are a special category of publication that can be critical in attracting visitors by including information on properties and any scheduled interpretive events. Many potential visitors check travel guides, such as those published by the American Automobile Association (AAA), when planning a trip. Many of these guides now also indicate when the places they feature are listed in the National Register.

Case Study 16. Rack Cards

The glossy, full-color rack cards produced for the historic sites administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission do not try to tell the whole story. Restricting the content to the highlights makes the effective and eye-catching design possible. (courtesy: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission)


The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has created a series of glossy, full color rack cards for the 27 historic sites that it administers. Measuring 4" x 9", these cards are designed specifically to fit in the racks at tourist bureaus and welcome centers. The theme of the site is summarized in one word, written in sweeping letters across the top of the card, where it will catch the eye of travelers. The theme for Washington Crossing Historic Park, in Bucks County, is "COURAGE." The front of the card contains only the name of the park, the theme, a detail from the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, and a very brief text: "Washington Crossing Historic Park is where, on Christmas 1776, George Washington crossed the icy Delaware River and restored his nation's morale." The reverse contains a somewhat longer story, a description, two black and white photos showing what visitors will see when they visit the site, a map, information on hours, and a contact address and phone number. Because the card does not attempt to tell too much, it has the open space that makes for a striking design.




Case Study 17. Monticello, Albemarle County, VA (designated a National Historic Landmark on December 19, 1960)

This brochure, written and designed for young people is one of a series of publications Monticello has created for specific audiences. Carefully written text and full-color photographs highlight artifacts such as a buffalo robe, bones of extinct animals, and the harpsichord played by Jefferson's daughters. (courtesy: Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Foundation)



Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia, has created a series of publications targeted to specific audiences. A promotional brochure goes to hotels, welcome centers, and visitors' bureaus. A series of garden and grounds brochures, including a self-guided tour of the slave and free workers' quarters along Mulberry Row, allows visitors to explore on their own. A newsletter keeps supporters informed of site-related activities. One of the most innovative ideas is a brochure specially written and designed for "young people." The large format is easy to handle. Full-color photographs highlight artifacts likely to interest children--a buffalo robe, bones of extinct animals, the harpsichord played by Jefferson's daughters. Young readers have no problem with the carefully written text. For those who want to learn more, the brochure includes a bibliography. 




Case Study 18. U. S. Forest Service Remount Depot, Missoula County, MT (listed in the National Register on April 10, 1980)

In the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps converted a run-down ranch in the Lolo National Forest 25 miles east of Missoula, Montana, into the Ninemile Remount Depot. Here the 100 to 200 horses and mules needed for fire-fighting in the Northern Rockies were bred and trained. Listed in the National Register in 1980, Ninemile Remount Depot is both an operating ranger station and a historic site. Here the public can learn to understand the complexities of caring for wilderness and to appreciate the historic role of the Forest Service. A brochure, designed to fit into a shirt pocket, leads visitors through the Depot, from the bell that called the firefighters to work ("This Bell Meant Business"), through the corrals ("Load 'Em Up"), the blacksmith shop ("Where Iron Meets the Trail"), the saddle shop, the barns, and the field where Cindy, the station's retired lead mule, grazes happily after 25 years of service. The brochure also provides safety information for visitors to this working ranger station: "corral your kids," keep a safe distance from the horses and mules, and stay on the trail ("Mules stay out of trouble by staying on the trail. We ask that you do the same.") The Ninemile Ranger Station also sponsors wilderness training courses, provides winter range for over 200 Forest Service horses and mules, and is home to the mule packtrain which has represented the Forest Service in parades all over the Nation.

Case Study 19. City of Rochester Publications Series

The Landmark Society of Western New York, in cooperation with the City of Rochester, New York, developed a series of several publications filling different functions. A large and glossy "coffee table" book doubles as a fund-raiser. A relatively low-cost 50-page spiral-bound booklet, Tours of Downtown Rochester: Images of History, includes six different walking tours of the city. A two-color brochure, donated by a local utility, reproduces Tour 3: the High Falls and Brown's Race Historic District (listed in the National Register on March 2, 1989). This tour features the city's earliest industrial area, centered around the 96-foot Genessee River falls, and is available free of charge.


Newspapers and magazines form a special sub-category of publications that are often under used. Since they reach mass audiences, they can disseminate information to thousands of readers, many of whom might be unaware of the historic places in their own communities. This is one of the best ways to reach new audiences. Well-placed articles create interest, elicit support, and, at a minimum, result in widespread casual familiarity with local historic places. Publicity related to special events is ideal for these media. Preparing news releases and offering to write or help write feature articles may well be worth the time it takes.

Research is as essential to effective media relations as it is to interpretation. It takes time and work to develop a list of media contacts, editors and reporters, along with notes about deadlines, style sheets, types of material used, etc. The list must be kept current if it is to be useful. Experienced historians and writers, either professional or volunteer, are essential to ensure that newspaper feature articles or magazine stories are accurate and effective.


Although most students learn about historic places through field trips, working with local teachers to develop lesson plans and other written educational materials is another good way to reach young people. These materials can be used before or after a field trip to increase its effectiveness and can bring places into classrooms when visits are impossible.

Developing educational materials is not always easy. Establishing partnerships between historic places and local educators can be difficult. Teachers may not know about the places that are available for their use, and historians are often inexperienced in dealing with educational bureaucracies. Like school tours, educational materials must meet the established objectives or outcomes required in state or local curricula. Teachers are expected to accomplish certain things, and educational materials that don't help them with their task will sit, expensively, on the shelf. Working closely with teachers in the development of educational materials is the best way to ensure that the materials will be used.

Some historic sites have developed "traveling trunks" as classroom supplements or substitutes for field trips. These are usually large boxes that contain artifacts, games, puzzles, posters, books, possibly audio tapes or videos, and suggestions for teacher activities. The trunks are shipped out to teachers that request them at a rental charge that covers the cost of shipping. Because they generally include many "hands-on" activities--artifacts that the students can touch, reproduction clothing that they can try on, possibly tools or toys that they can use--the trunks are popular with both teachers and students. Because they don't require staff involvement, they are ideal for places without large paid or volunteer staffs.

Trunks need to be planned as carefully as any other interpretive technique, if they are to be effective. Like all educational materials, they should be curriculum-based. Everything in them must relate directly to the story of the place or the space and money that is invested in them is wasted. Including too many items adds to the cost of preparation and shipping, and dilutes the interpretive message.

Case Study 20. PARTNERS

The Potomac Area Rural Teachers Using National Education Resources for Students (PARTNERS) is a cooperative program involving four National Park Service sites, Shepherd College, and six local school districts in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Together the partners organized summer institutes for teachers and employees of the cooperating agencies. Participants in the institutes were paid and could also earn graduate credits from West Virginia University. Everyone worked together to produce curriculum-based multi-disciplinary educational materials for each of the parks. These materials are closely tied to local school curricula for fourth through eighth grade students. After field testing, the materials were published in a comprehensive teacher's guide. Introduced to local schools in workshops conducted by the teachers who helped create it, the teacher's guide includes a video and the curriculum-based lesson plans developed for each of the four parks. The partners also produced a "how to" evaluation guide other areas could use to evaluate education programs.

Case Study 21. Teaching with Historic Places

Teaching with Historic Places, a program administered by the National Register of Historic Places, has produced nearly 100 short lesson plans that can be used to bring historic places into classrooms nationwide. They serve as "virtual field trips" when a site visit is impossible, but also can serve as effective as pre- or post-visit classroom materials. Each Teaching with Historic Places lesson links one or more historic properties listed in the National Register to broad themes, issues, and events covered in most social studies curricula. A lesson plan on Ybor City, in Tampa, Florida, for example, describes a multiethnic, multiracial community in the Deep South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Students can compare the strategies immigrants from Cuba used to maintain their ethnic identity with those of the more often studied eastern and southern European immigrants in northern cities. A lesson plan on the USS Arizona Memorial, in Hawaii, helps students understand how the Pearl Harbor attack precipitated the United States into World War II. All Teaching with Historic Places lesson plans include background information, learning objectives, maps, readings, photographs, and activities--everything students will need to attain the objectives of the lesson. Many of the lesson plans are now available for downloading on the National Register Web site. The program has also developed a curriculum framework and other guidance for organizations and individuals seeking to develop educational material based on their own historic places.

Case Study 22. Monocacy Battlefield, Frederick County, MD (listed in the National Register November 12, 1973)

On July 9, 1864, Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early attacked Union forces commanded by Major Gen. Lew Wallace on the Monocacy River near Frederick, Maryland. Although the battle was a Confederate victory, it bought critical time to organize the defenses of Washington. Listed in the National Register in 1973, the battlefield is now a unit of the National Park System. This small park worked with the NPS Harpers Ferry Center to design and develop an educational outreach kit for use in 5th- and 6th-grade classrooms within driving distance of the park. The activities help students understand the battle's impact on soldiers and local civilians. An introductory brochure describes how the kit can be used. A Teacher's Guide helps teachers prepare the materials for classroom use. The activities are flexible, taking several hours or several days to complete.

The two self-contained wheeled boxes holding the kit fit easily in vans or station wagons. They contain a large (approximately six feet square) vinyl floor map, timeline maps for the teacher, an audio tape, a tape player and a reproduction haversack for each student. Each haversack contains a playing piece, a name tag, a character card representing a person involved in the battle, and a read-along booklet. The character card contains background information about the person that the student is to portray, such as a soldier, a general, a young woman or man, a six-year old boy, a farmer, a minister, or an enslaved African American. Students wear the name tags identifying their characters and move their playing pieces on the floor map as they follow the taped account of the battle. Because students were bored with a traditional narrative when the kits were tested in classrooms, the tape uses a professionally written and narrated script and sound effects and sounds very much like a radio drama.

The kit also includes additional background material on the Civil War, the battle, the Frederick community, and on fashions, cooking, and popular songs of the period as well. Supplemental student activities include newspaper templates, so students can prepare their own news accounts of the battle and its effects on the local population.

The kit is intended to provide a model for other places that want to reach out to their local schools but do not have the staff to provide direct assistance. All that is needed is an exciting story, a map with interesting visuals, characters to provide students with role-playing opportunities, and ideas for add-on activities. It takes time and effort to put the visual materials together and to do the research, however. Because students wanted to know more about the real people they were playing, additional research had to be completed before the kit assumed its final form.

Student thank-you letters to the park include the following comments: "I was Lieutenant George Davis and I didn't even know about him and that he became in charge too till we saw the trunk that you used," "I liked your trunk. It was neat except the haversacks smelled a little," and "It was so fun to learn and be a character. It was like you could really be at the battle . . . "


Exhibits usually combine art, artifacts, and maps with interpretive text and photographs to communicate directly, without lengthy explanation. They are versatile and colorful. Rich in texture, they are visually appealing. Visitors can move through them at their own pace, spending as much or as little time as they desire. Restored furnished interiors in historic places provide a direct connection to the past, as well as providing an appropriate setting for important collections. Museum exhibits, using artifacts and artists' recreations of past conditions, are often the best way to tell the stories of archeological sites, because much of what has been learned about these places comes from artifacts found though excavation,

Exhibits, of course, require space. Many historic places are themselves exhibits, at least in part. Many parks and large historic sites have visitors' centers that may also house exhibits. Here, visitors receive orientation to both physical setting and historic context. In other cases finding space for the exhibit may be a problem. The display space needs to have controlled heat and humidity if it contains delicate or irreplaceable items. Unique and fragile artifacts need special care to protect them from the environment, from theft, and from damage.

While exhibits excel when they deal with concrete objects, they are not well suited to interpreting abstract concepts or dynamic stories. Restored interiors can be the springboard for countless stories, but they need to be supplemented with other types of interpretation if these stories are to be told effectively. Exhibits are often static. It is hard to design an exhibit that can discuss a story in-depth--too many words convert museum displays into unread decoration. Attempts by subject matter experts to incorporate too much information can be confusing. Standing and reading long labels eventually exhausts even the most interested visitor.

Careful research is necessary to ensure that only authentic and well documented artifacts are used. Items that never would have shared the same space historically should not share an exhibit either. To be effective, the story of each exhibit needs careful definition, usually focusing on a specific theme or a relatively short timespan.

Case Study 23. Cahokia Mounds, St. Clair County, IL (designated a National Historic Landmark on July 19, 1964)

The interpretive center at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois is designed to appeal to amateur and professional archeologists, collectors, academics, casual tourists, local residents, educators and students alike (courtesy: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site)

Cahokia Mounds State Park, near Collinsville, Illinois, about eight miles east of St. Louis, preserves part of the largest prehistoric site north of Mexico. From 1100 to 1200 A.D., the more than a hundred earthen mounds at Cahokia, occupying almost 4,000 acres, were home to an estimated 20,000 people. The park's interpretive center is designed to appeal to amateur and professional archeologists, collectors, academics, casual tourists, local residents, educators and students alike. The interior is divided into seven "islands," each devoted to a different theme: time (Cahokia's position in the evolution of cultures in North America), culture (how the site reflects the traditions of Mississippian culture), city (the nature of the site as an urban area), life (beliefs and customs from birth to death), products (fabrication or acquisition), and knowing (the process of archeological investigation). Each of the islands contains displays that include artifacts (some of which visitors can handle), artwork, dioramas, video-disc monitors, and explanatory labels. Visitors can enjoy a half-an-hour whirlwind tour or stay for a whole day, reading and looking.

The high point of the exhibit is an award-winning audio-visual presentation, using a 40-foot screen and 13 slide projectors in a special theater. When the theater darkens at the end of the presentation, the screen rises and day apparently begins in a 60-by-40 foot diorama behind the screen. The diorama includes 18 life-sized models of men, women, and children going about their daily tasks in a setting incorporating seven replica structures. The diorama is surrounded by mirrored walls that extend the image, suggesting the scale of the prehistoric city. Recorded sounds of birds, activities, and voices speaking an unintelligible language give a remarkable sense of immersion, truly an "empathetic understanding of the past." When the lights come on, the audience can move from the theater into the diorama. When they then go outside onto the actual site, they take the understanding that they have gained in the museum with them, "seeing" the landscape in a way that they could never have done without this powerful experience.


Historic districts and landscapes are, in a sense, outdoor exhibits that can give visitors the sense of actually being in the past. They help to satisfy the need to see the "real thing"--a common motivation for visitors to historic sites. Permanent signage, such as historic markers and wayside exhibits, are one way to provide the supplemental interpretation that is usually necessary before the stories of these places can be clearly communicated. They help visitors understand what is in their field of vision--the broad panorama below Little Round Top at Gettysburg, the texture of an adobe wall, a downtown historic district. They are often the only form of interpretation at outdoor locations. Since they are outside, they are usually available at any time, independent of staffs and building hours. Visitors read at their own pace, making them the ultimate form of self-service interpretation. New technologies and more durable materials allow the addition of illustrations, greatly increasing visual appeal and interpretive depth at a reasonable cost. Effective signs are not dependent on visitors seeking them out; they can easily attract the attention of the man-in-the-street--literally.

Exterior signs are like photos in a book. The captions only address a tiny piece of the story. Texts must be short (some experts recommend limiting signs to 50 words). Nothing can be interpreted in detail. These outdoor signs are very site specific and usually express a single thought. It is easy to present a distorted or oversimplified view of the past, as many older historical markers did. Environmental conditions affect both the comfort level of visitors and the durability of the exhibits themselves. Locations must be chosen carefully, both because of content and because of environment. If signs are to be placed along busy walkways or roads, specific issues need to be considered. Can cars pull off the road safely? How high is low enough for disabled visitors? Do the signs block foot traffic? The environment also influences the choice of media. Outdoor exhibits need to be designed with the elements in mind--sun and wind, rain and snow. Even vandalism must be considered when selecting materials and determining design. Signs that annoy invite vandalism. It is also essential to evaluate the potential impact of the signage on the historic places being interpreted. This is particularly important in the case of historic landscapes.

Case Study 24. Historic US Route 66 in Arizona Multiple Property Submission

[photo] US Route 66 carried thousands of Americans from Chicago to Los Angeles. The US Forest Service tells the story of the highest stretch of the historic road in a program using imaginative interpretive road signs. (Teri Cleeland, courtesy:Kaibab National Forest)


The Forest Service has also developed markers for people who bicycle along "old Route 66." Some of the auto and bike markers are printed in full color and look like old-fashioned picture postcards (Teri Cleeland, courtesy:Kaibab National Forest)

From its establishment in 1926 through 1984, when the last segment was replaced by the new interstate I-40, US Route 66 carried many thousands of Americans from Chicago to Los Angeles, fleeing hard times or seeking good ones. The highest stretch of the 2,282-mile highway lies within the boundaries of the Kaibab National Forest, just west of Flagstaff, Arizona, and south of the Grand Canyon. The U.S. Forest Service, which administers the forest, identified three abandoned sections of "old Route 66," three sections of "rural Route 66" still in use for local access, and one section of "urban Route 66" in the town of Williams. The agency nominated all seven segments to the National Register in 1989.

The Forest Service also created a series of markers for the historic road segments. Featuring a prominent "Route 66" shield, the markers are made of porcelain enamel, the same durable material used for historic road signs. They are printed in full color and are designed to look like the postcards that travelers along old Route 66 sent back to friends and family. Three are located along a driving tour that takes travelers over 22 miles of the old highway, some of it paved roadway dating from the 1930s, some a gravel road following the alignment of 1926. The other two are located at the beginning and end of a mountain bike tour covering rougher sections of the old roadbed. Brochures describing both tours are available from local sporting goods stores and Forest Service offices. Although the small Route 66 markers that the Forest Service installed disappeared almost immediately, the only damage to the larger ones has been caused by someone using one of them for shotgun practice. The colors have not yet faded in the years since they were installed.

Because the fabric of the old road is fragile, the Forest Service decided not to try to attract the general public. The principal audience for their interpretation consists of the many people who are fascinated with Route 66. Stories appear regularly in specialized magazines for enthusiasts and the distribution of over a thousand auto tour brochures annually seems to indicate that the audience is being reached.

Case Study 25. City Walk

Visitors following Nashville's City Walk find both informative historical markers and unusual life-sized silhouettes of former inhabitants of the city. (courtesy: Nashville Metropolitan Historical Commission)

In Nashville, Tennessee, the Metropolitan Historical Commission developed a multi-faceted City Walk that combines publications and exterior signage and that is both fun and good for business. They envisioned families exploring Nashville streets, laughing, posing for pictures, and spending a few dollars along the way. They wanted to be sure that these visitors appreciated that the history of the city of Nashville is the story of people, events, and activity. City Walk includes:

    - A blue-green line on the sidewalk that draws visitors off the most congested city streets and leads them past historic sites and less frequented shops and restaurants.
    - A well designed map and brochure that provides a lively, easy-to-use, portable interpretive commentary that discusses historical context as well as facts.
    - Interpretive signs that satisfy those visitors who want more historical information on individual sites. Durable and readable, these exterior signs respect the fact that readers are on their feet and may be hot or cold. Matte finishes minimize sun glare. Color and material control visual intrusion, while the typeface reflects the era or architecture of the tour's structures.

Breaking out of the traditional mold, City Walk also includes life-size silhouettes at each site. Designed to attract attention, these silhouettes portray a wide range of Nashvillians. A man plays a saxophone outside one location while a doughboy returning from World War I enthusiastically embraces his girl at another. On the tour's inaugural day, some of these characters came to life thanks to dramatic vignettes prepared and delivered by local actors.

Case Study 26. Visually Speaking


The 150-mile-long Delaware & Lehigh Canal National Heritage Corridor links coal fields near Wilkes-Barre with the port of Philadelphia in southeastern Pennsylvania. The Corridor also passes through the Bucks County villages of New Hope and Doylestown, the old Moravian settlement of Bethlehem, with its restored 18th-century buildings and huge, 20th-century Bethlehem Steel plant (now largely abandoned), and the exuberant Victorian architecture of Jim Thorpe (formerly Mauch Chunk) in the scenic Pocono Mountains, including over two hundred properties listed in the National Register. The Corridor was authorized by Congress in 1988 to preserve the historic heritage of anthracite, its transportation routes to market and the industries it spawned, and to contribute to the economic development of the area.

Using funding from a variety of public and private sources, the Corridor Commission developed "Visually Speaking," a series of guidelines for directional, identification, trail, pedestrian and information signs, historical markers, waysides, and orientation kiosks. These guidelines, which can also be used on brochures, stationery, and maps, were designed to link the many historic sites along the Corridor into an identifiable whole. The central element is a logo that incorporates symbols of the mountains, river and canal, and of the coal fires and toothed gear wheels of the industries that contributed so much to the history of the area. The committee that selected the logo represented many of the partners in the corridor. The guidelines were designed not to impose a unified identity, but to reveal a unity that was already there. Sue Pridemore, the Corridor's Interpretive Specialist, described the purpose of "Visually Speaking": "Residents and visitors will know that they are in a special place when they see directional and entrance signs bearing the Corridor's colors and shape. This unified visual approach to identifying our living space encourages partnerships and the sharing of resources."


Large parks and historic sites have long used films as important parts of their interpretive programs. With the explosion in new audio-visual technologies, groups with smaller staffs and smaller budgets have increasingly been able to afford this technique. Video and video projection is replacing film. Compact disks now carry both sound and image and allow the audience to make selections from a menu of programs. Recorded audio messages can be played back from a device commonly called a message repeater. A Traveler's Information Station (TIS) picks up very short-range radio broadcasts and plays them at the extreme ends of a car radio dial. Short interpretive programs, quotations, or even music can be played on these devices in outdoor settings. Synchronized sound and slides and other portable audio-visual programs can be shown in meeting rooms, small theaters, classrooms, even in private homes. Visitors can buy or rent films, tapes, cassette disks, and other audio-visual materials. If the audience is large enough, these programs can even make money.

Audio-visual programs are particularly effective in presenting the broad strokes of a story--the overview. When the story is dynamic and full of action and activity, movies or videos are ideal. They are excellent mood setters. They are adept at showing change and special effects dramatize the story. Cassette tape driving tours are an excellent way to link the stories of whole communities or regions. Videos combining historic photographs with taped oral histories are very effective. Music creates a mood and evokes powerful memories. Scripted and well-performed interpretation can be captured for repeated use. An audio-visual program can even illustrate otherwise invisible features of a place--fragile artifacts, historic fabric that has been lost through alteration, or even archeological sites temporarily uncovered during excavation. Translations, amplified sound, and closed captions assist visitors with special needs. Radio and television can supplement on-site audio-visual presentations effectively. Local television and radio stations are often willing to air well-produced pieces or even assist with production.

Audio-visual programs are, of course, impersonal. The possibility of communicating with large numbers of people brings with it the loss of direct face-to-face contact. Once produced, programs can be extremely difficult to change. Initial costs for producing the more elaborate audio-visual materials, such as 35-mm films and videos, are still high. Although the new audio-visual techniques are less expensive than the old ones, they are not cheap. It is difficult and expensive to keep up with rapidly changing technology. Viewers demand nothing less than professional quality. Both the materials and the equipment necessary to show films and videos can be costly to maintain. All machinery requires controlled environmental conditions. Backup equipment and maintenance must be planned. In many cases, films and videos require a controlled setting, often a theater, and are usually presented on a fixed schedule. In addition to the obvious start-up costs, administration of a program with loaned equipment requires storage and distribution space and staff to give out and collect the players. As in the case of tours, publicity is critical and not always easy to get. Visitors need to know that these materials are available and where to find them.

In some situations, audio programs or audio-visual equipment are simply out of place. They are discordant and inappropriate elements in a historic setting. Recorded sound interferes with places designed for contemplation. Electronic equipment, even when mostly hidden, jars in a meticulously restored landscape or room interior. Many historic properties predate the electricity that makes audio-visuals possible. Without an appropriate setting, audio-visual programs should be used with extreme caution.

Case Study 27. Kingston Stockade District, Ulster County, New York (listed in the National Register on June 19, 1975)

In Kingston, some of the buildings in the city's historic core "speak for themselves." In a program co-sponsored by the Kingston Urban Cultural Park, the Hudson River Valley Greenway Communities Council, the City of Kingston, and a local radio station, the "Historic Kingston Talking House Tour" features ten properties, ranging from the 1620 Old Dutch Church to the Volunteer Fireman's Museum, built in 1857 as the home of the Wiltwyck Hose Company. The stories are told over two frequencies at the top of the AM dial. Visitors with cars can tune in on their car radios; those on foot can borrow walkman-type portable radios from the Kingston Urban Cultural Park Visitor Center.

Case Study 28. Gaslamp Quarter Historic District, San Diego County, CA (listed in the National Register on May 23, 1980)

The Gaslamp Quarter Foundation in San Diego, California, worked with a contractor to produce an audio tape tour that guides visitors through an area that represents both the city's transformation from frontier town to commercial urban center between 1889 and about 1910 and its notorious gambling and "Stingaree" red light districts. A narrator directs visitors from point to point, telling them when to turn off the tape and look around, pointing out interesting architectural features, and alerting them to traffic when they cross busy streets. The narration is supplemented by three or four "guests"--including Wyatt Earp, who owned three gambling halls in the city in the late 19th century; his wife, very concerned about the former houses of ill repute which her husband seems to know all too well; the lady who operated one of these places, who is about to tell Earp whether it was the chief of police or the mayor who was almost caught in a police raid on her establishment when she is interrupted by Mrs. Earp's arrival; and the "Father of Chinatown."

Visitors rent the tapes as the William Heath Davis House Museum, the oldest building in the district and the headquarters of the Foundation. The availability of the tape and other tours presented by the Foundation is publicized in local and national travel publications. The Foundation also is working closely with the city's Cultural Planning Office to promote San Diego as a cultural center. Comments by visitors who have used the tapes have been uniformly enthusiastic, and apparently all of them have negotiated the street crossings safely.

Case Study 29. Oakland Point Historic District, San Francisco County, CA (determined eligible for listing in the National Register in 1990)

The California Department of Transportation worked closely with local preservation and planning organizations in West Oakland to create an interpretive program for the Oakland Point Historic District. The program included a book, Sites and Sounds: Essays in Celebration of West Oakland (courtesy: California Department of Transportation)

In 1990, the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) identified a number of historic resources in West Oakland, across the Bay from San Francisco, that would be affected by the reconstruction of the Route I-880 freeway that collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, including the old Southern Pacific railyards and the Oakland Point Historic District. In order to fulfill its commitments under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, CALTRANS embarked on an interpretive program as partial mitigation of the impact of the project on the Oakland Point Historic District, which was determined to be eligible for listing in the National Register. After extensive consultation with local neighborhood preservation and planning organizations, the program grew to include two sophisticated videos, a book, Sites and Sound: A Celebration of West Oakland, and a number of traveling exhibits.

Oakland Point began as a commuter suburb in the 1860s. The Central (later the Southern) Pacific Railroad arrived in 1869, transforming what had been a small commuter suburb into the western terminus of the first transcontinental railroad and virtually a railroad "company town." Many nationalities have been represented in the town over the years--first Yankee and North Europeans, then Italians and Slavs, Asians, and African Americans. The numbers of African Americans grew dramatically during World War II, when young men from the South arrived in large numbers, attracted by good-paying railroad and shipyard jobs. This is the rich heritage that is documented in the two videos. "Crossroads: A Story of West Oakland" uses historic views, both still photographs and early motion picture footage, to dramatize the railroad's dominance in the area during the 19th and early 20th century. Interviews with long-time residents show the strength and resilience of all of the groups that have occupied "The Point," still one of Oakland's largest and most intact Victorian neighborhoods. "Privy To the Past" concentrates on information on the daily lives of ordinary families living in West Oakland from the 1800s through the early 1900s provided by archeological investigations conducted by CALTRANS.

Both videos have been very popular. They have been shown on local cable television channels and are in much demand in local school districts. Not only have they encouraged a sense of pride in the neighborhood, they have also helped improve CALTRANS's largely negative image in the community.


Electronic media are particularly effective at telling stories about change or ones filled with action and activity. Computer technology provides rapid access to huge amounts of information and can drive interactive simulated programs. Simulations are uniquely adapted to showing change over time. Simulations interpreting the stories of archeological sites can be very effective in providing visitors with a sense of the life that once filled these now apparently barren places. Interactive interpretation in the form of devices like quiz boards has been used for years, but computers, touch screens, and laser disk players have made interactivity both more exciting and more affordable. Budgets capable of buying personal computers can now support sophisticated programs. Interactive exhibits increasingly allow visitors to select those aspects of a story that interest them--to tailor the exhibit to their particular interests. They can record their opinions, ask questions, and get answers from historic figures.

Exploration of the interplay between the Internet and historic properties is still in its early stages. A computer and modem open new opportunities for the dissemination of information. Worldwide audiences are now within reach. More and more museums are providing access to their collections via the Internet. Visitors and potential visitors can now read brochures and other publications on Web sites developed by museums and historic sites. The Internet can link geographically or thematically related sites at the click of a button. More and more people turn to the World Wide Web for travel information. Bulletin boards help those with special interests exchange information.

Web sites and interactive programs require a considerable amount of time and money to create. Web sites, in particular, must be continually maintained and updated to be useful. Users are increasingly familiar with this technology and demand programs that respond quickly with state-of-the-art graphics. Equipment is relatively durable but requires protection from heat and dust, as well as other environmental controls. Back-ups for both hard- and software are essentials--not luxuries. Interactive programs can be monopolized; it may be necessary to plan ways to induce a turnover of users.

There is also the danger that technology can become the message. If visitors remember the program and forget the story, if children push the button to simply start the computer and then dance along to another gadget, technology is ill-used. Keeping the focus on the story that you want to tell and integrating these new and exciting technologies into an overall interpretive program is the best way to ensure that this doesn't happen.

Case Study 30. Pickett's Mill Battlefield Site, Paulding County, GA (listed in the National Register April 26, 1973)

On May 27, 1864, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's Union troops attacked Confederate units commanded by Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne near Pickett's Mill in northwest Georgia and were repulsed with a loss of an estimated 1,600 men. At Pickett's Mill Historic Site, administered by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, an interactive computer game called "Take Command" allows visitors to test their skill as battle commanders. The 5- to 10-minute game uses an ordinary personal computer, video disk player, and touch screen, all installed when the park first opened to the public in 1990.

The game assigns players the generally unpopular role of Union commander. Using maps showing the positions of Union and Confederate troops, players make choices that affect the outcome of the battle. They can choose a frontal attack or a flanking maneuver; they can decide whether to hold back reserves or commit all their troops immediately; they can construct their own protective earthworks or continue to attack the Confederate fortifications. When the video smoke clears and either Union or Confederate strategies prevail, the vicarious participant receives a rank based upon the quality of decisions made in the heat of battle. Successful players may come out of the battle as major generals. Those with less strategic ability or worse luck may find themselves reprimanded for their "dismal performance" and reassigned to procuring pork! The game is fun--on busy weekends families monopolizing the screen sometimes have to be asked to move on to let others play. But it also makes an important point about contingency. A notice mounted above the screen reminds players that: "Battles do not follow fixed laws, only general principles. This game may present variable situations and results even if you do everything exactly the same. You can do the wrong thing and win, and the right thing and lose, just as commanders did in the war."

Case Study 31. Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary Series

Working with the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Offices and other public and private partners, the National Register has developed a series of print and electronic itineraries called Discover Our Shared Heritage. The itineraries help travelers plan trips that link a variety of historic places listed in the National Register, including National Parks, National Historic Landmarks, and state and locally significant historic places. The itineraries include essays providing historic contextual information, interactive maps, descriptions of each place's significance in history, photographs, information on public accessibility, and links to state historic preservation offices, state tourism bureaus, and local sites which can provide additional information. Internet travelers can view the itineraries on-line and print out copies of the maps, photographs, and property descriptions.

In 1999, the series included seven geographically based itineraries, covering Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, Charleston, South Carolina, Washington, DC, the Georgia-Florida coast, Central Vermont, and Kingston, NY, the latter two produced in cooperation with local communities. Thematically based itineraries included "Aboard the Underground Railroad," "Places Where Women Made History," and "We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement." The itineraries can be accessed through the National Register Web site (see Section 6, below). They require fairly sophisticated, and expensive, hard- and soft-ware, but are relatively easy to develop and update and have been very popular.

The format for the electronic itineraries is based on published four-color printed itineraries on sites in the Southwest, Georgia-Florida, Texas, California, and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands that highlight early Spanish settlement in the area that became the United States. These itineraries were developed in partnership with American Express.

Case Study 32. Fort Sumter National Monument, Charleston County, SC

Tulane University has developed a multi-media site on the World Wide Web called "Crisis at Fort Sumter", www.tulane.edu/~latner/CrisisMain.html, which leads viewers through the period leading up to the attack on this fortified island in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, that precipitated the Civil War. Using text, photographs, maps, and music, the program allows viewers to participate in President Lincoln's decisions leading up to the attack, stopping at five different turning points to listen to varying recommendations and decide what course of action they would take. They can then compare their choices with what actually happened. More detail is available through hypertext links. Other sections call up the opinions of well-known historians on the meaning of these events. Finally, a section called "Questions for Consideration" leads participants beyond the facts, pointing out that "asking questions and looking for answers are essential components of the historian's craft." It asks such questions as: Was Lincoln responsible for the outbreak of the war because of his provocative actions? Would a more conciliatory course have made any difference? Did the Confederacy really need to take Fort Sumter? Was Lincoln's decision to relieve the fort based on a sense that there were no good alternatives, "that the 'best' decision was actually only the 'least bad' alternative"?  

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